How crazy do you have to be to take on Oz at the movies? Victor Fleming shepherded Judy Garland, an army of little people and some exquisite Technicolor photography to worldwide acclaim at the height of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch wasn’t so successful when he directed Return to Oz in 1985. Since cinephiles and moviegoers alike widely consider the former film to be a cultural touchstone and the latter a noble failure, why would one even try to tackle such a daunting challenge?
The answer’s pretty simple: L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz at the turn of the 20th Century and had as many flops as he had successes as author and theater impresario, created a complex fantasy realm over the course of 14 books and several stage adaptations, one that seems perfectly suited to 21st Century technology. The virtue of Oz the Great and Powerful, a big-budget, effects-laden Disney production that takes you behind the curtain to chronicle how a circus illusionist becomes the leader of Baum’s magic kingdom, is that it uses the fancy tools of contemporary moviemaking to turn back the clock.
Director Sam Raimi (the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy) doesn’t just capture a specific time period. He evokes a sensibility that’s striking because it’s been mostly absent from this kind of 3D event picture. He suffuses the journey of our titular charlatan (James Franco) with a wide-eyed sense of wonder, opting for deliberately paced simplicity over the sort of wall-to-wall, sensory-overload approach that has desensitized so many jaded viewers. The word that kept coming to mind when I saw what the Evil Dead auteur did to Baum’s works was “purity,” of content as well as of style.
Call it the “kid gloves” treatment, and not just for the film’s delicate tonal balance, but because it seems like Raimi asked himself how a child with an overactive imagination would handle this material, and then just went with that. Take, for instance, the old-school 3D effects that Raimi literally throws at the audience. He peppers an otherwise understated, seamlessly immersive stereoscopic transfer with some goofy, comin’-at-ya CGI that gives the film a retro, theme-park-ride feel without intruding on the story’s gentle narrative flow.
We begin in sepia-toned, classically framed splendor, as Oz‘s first act unfolds in the boxy, Academy screen ratio Michel Hazanavicius adopted in The Artist. It’s 1905, and Franco’s Kansas-bred magician is stuck in a rut, suckering gullible farm folk out of their pocket change for a show that’s big on over-the-top theatrics and small on real wizardry. Ah, but watch carefully, because Raimi places viewers in the audience seat and shows you that despite being a womanizing con man, Oz is a capable showman who still delivers old-fashioned thrills if you’re able to suspend disbelief. Much like Raimi himself.
But much like a Disney princess, Oz yearns for “something more.” He wants to achieve greatness, not merely settle into the doldrums of a barely-scraping-by circus life, and if that means turning down Annie (Michelle Williams, channeling Brokeback Mountain‘s Alma), a girl he cares for and who genuinely likes him back, then so be it. Cue a hot-air balloon and an ill-timed tornado. No, not a tornado. In Oz‘s Kansas, it’s called an inverted funnel.
Raimi’s best-known work possesses a gleeful, eye-popping stylistic abandon, but what’s commendable of his direction here is his restraint, how he’s able to incorporate the cheap thrills of his blond-and-guts early efforts and the dizzying visuals of Darkman and his Spider-Man movies without disturbing the hushed rhythms of this travelogue across Baum’s surreal, candy-colored territory. He succeeds where Tim Burton stumbled when he tried his hand at reimagining Lewis Carroll’s Alice adventures for the screen. That film was a lush, impersonal snooze, whereas Oz is recognizably Raimian.
Oz’s balloon crashes in the land that bears his name, and at this point, Drag Me to Hell cinematographer Peter Deming’s rich hues take over the screen, which opens up to its full, enveloping widescreen dimensions. In an inspired bit of foreshadowing, the top hat-wearing huckster recoils at what appears to be a creature coming his way. It turns out to be the beautiful, elegantly dressed Theodora (Mila Kunis, ideally cast), a witch who, as fans of Baum’s books and Gregory Maguire’s Wicked will probably be able to discern before everybody else, has the story’s juiciest character arc. Like many women before her, Theodora succumbs to Oz’s charms. As they traipse their way to the Emerald City, she updates our protagonist on her people’s struggle. An evil witch killed Theodora’s father, the ruler of Oz, and ever since then, she and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) have been waiting for the prophecy to come to pass: a man falling from the skies who would save their realm from this tree hugger’s ruthless clutches.
The duo’s arrival to the Emerald City is one of the film’s rare missteps, an anticlimactic moment that lacks the sense of awe Fleming achieves in his iconic shot of Dorothy and her companions heading into the green metropolis. By this point, Finley (the voice of Zach Braff), a winged capuchin monkey in a bellhop outfit, has joined in, and he functions, not just as light-hearted comic relief, but as the conscience of Franco’s deceitful scoundrel. Evanora can see right through this fast-talking “savior,” but opts to play along for the good of the kingdom. Or so it appears.
Oz and Finley’s quest, with the last-minute addition of the dainty yet spunky China Doll (Joey King), leads them to Glinda (Williams again, this time appropriating some of the mannerisms of Billie Burke – the 1939 Glinda), who gives them some real answers and provides Oz with the opportunity to show what kind of man he truly is: a hero, or an opportunist? Raimi knows that many viewers will already be a step ahead of him plot-wise, so what he and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire do is turn Oz’s story into a tale of arrested development that places emphasis on character development over narrative.
The film’s detractors point to Raimi’s poky pacing, and they do make a valid observation. Oz the Great and Powerful would have probably been a more effective flight of fancy with a less episodic structure. But to zero in on the movie’s lack of momentum is to overlook its unblemished beauty, its radiant generosity of spirit. You’re free to dismiss Raimi’s childlike showmanship as tiresome and stodgy. I’ll just go ahead and call it wondrous and transporting. This is the work of a man giddily in tune with his inner 7-year-old, and he sends the dreamers in the audience home with an extra sparkle in their eyes.
Oz the Great and Powerful opens Friday in wide release. Shell out the extra bucks and see it in 3D. The enhanced format in this case is very much worth your while.